Dennis Byron's Open Source Series: Talking to... Alfresco

John Newton is a great source of wisdom for managers of OSS-centric start-ups of any functionality because he's been through the last two major shifts in software market dynamics in his career.



In the 1980s, fresh out of Berkeley, John started with Ingres (the old Ingres before it was part of and then spun out of CA). In 1990, he and some friends founded Documentum, based over in the East Bay at Pleasanton. Documentum became a leader in the enterprise content management (ECM) market and was acquired by disk-drive-maker-cum-software-supplier EMC in 2003. But by that time John had moved to the U.K. to work from Documentum's European office and he liked it there so much he never formally moved back to the U.S. He left Documentum in 2001, launched an application company in the U.K. for the financial services industry under the brand Activiti, and then in 2005 he co-founded Alfresco. The Ingres/Documentum experience was highly related to the client/server shift in the market whereas the Activiti/Alfresco experience is highly linked to Web 2.0.

Lesson for users: you can never make hard and fast distinctions when it comes to computer architectural shifts highly touted in the press. They happen over decades and are very iterative. It's functionality that counts. That's why, as a lesson for investors, John Newton cautions against emphasizing any company or product characteristic higher than one rates functionality. In Alfresco's case, as it had been with Documentum, the functionality is ECM.

Newton thinks the heritage ECM guys, including his old company, have so much tied up in legacy client/server code that they can't move forward effectively or quickly to this generation. As way of recent background, Newton and former Business Objects Senior VP of operations John Powell decided to start a new ECM software company because the market was consolidating and because they believed they could offer a cost-effective alternative to those companies carrying legacy baggage.

They felt that was especially true in the ECM distribution channel, which was being squeezed by the proprietary ECM suppliers. Given their backgrounds, Newton and Powell concentrated on the enterprise in ECM rather than on web content management features.

As for a lesson for other software supplier startups, Newton says make development decisions that makes sense for your business plan and target market. Even more important than his choice to go OSS with Alfresco, Newton credits his choice to use aspect oriented programming (AOP). He said it was similar to a decision he had made when starting Documentum to use object-oriented programming (OOP). As a result, he caught the wave of a new development paradigm ahead of the market but after it was mature enough to fit his needs. "AOP makes everything overridable; everything is pluggable…, extendable," says Newton. The three characteristics-overridable, pluggable and extendable are key features needed when emphasizing the enterprise in ECM. AOP let the Alfresco team build the product from the ground up and more quickly ("five times faster in Alfresco's case") than any other option he considered.

The "quickly" in terms of development iterations is where OSS comes in. And John believes his European base helped him see the benefits of that development decision faster than he would have seen it in the U.S. There is a lot of OSS in Europe and he realized it had to be part of the formula as he and Powell addressed the opportunity they saw in the ECM market. In fact they had used OSS pieces in the short-lived Activiti financial services application and some of its features survive still in the Alfresco framework.

Just to repeat the lesson for startups, investors and users: Alfresco saw the ECM opportunity before it decided on OSS. Alfresco saw AOP as a design methodology before it decided on OSS. Alfresco saw OSS as a means to get to both places fast (with a low barrier to market entry although that's my opinion; Newton did not mention that as a benefit). OSS provided the rapid iteration and innovation Newton needed to get Alfresco into the market quickly. The idea of having a community did not come first; they began the community after they launched the company. Newton feels "people took note of the background of the founders," which helped build community faster.

The community has provided:

  • Translations in 20 different languages
  • Add-ons for Outlook and plug-ins (e.g., to add calendar)
  • Metadata extraction was an important feature added by the OSS community

Alfresco was forged in mid 2005 (remember they had some basic code already from Activiti), had 10,000 downloads the first month and 100,000 by the end of that year when they declared general availability. The first sales came in mid 2006 and Alfresco currently boasts 15,000 registered users, several thousand of whom develop "on top of Alfresco." Another lesson for startups: "quickly" does not mean instantly.

In terms of licensing, Alfresco started with the Lesser GNU General Public License (LGPL) model; switched to a SugarCRM model but that prevented Alfresco from meeting some government mandates and encouraged the community in a less useful direction (e.g., replicating OSS versions of enterprise extensions rather than the add-ons and plug-ins that help everyone in the community more).

Alfresco settled on the MySQL-like dual model letting Alfresco focus primarily on services (tech support, indemnity and maintenance) while letting OEMs embed the product. Another lesson for startups: the OSS license model chosen needs to directly relate to your business plan.

For the OSS record, Alfresco is built using Spring, Hibernate, Lucene and jBPM based on standards and techniques such JSR-170, JSR-168, Web Services and Representational State Transfer (REST). The Alfresco middleware lineup provides high availability, distributed content synchronization, fail-over management and clustering that is rapidly catching up, in terms of performance, to proprietary middleware offering the same functionality. In terms of giving back to the community, Alfresco is working more on open standards than OSS via groups in the content management space such as AIIM (formerly known as the Association for Information and Image Management). However, Alfresco has participated on various JSR efforts via the Java Community Process (JCP) and with the Open Document Format effort to keep independence in authoring tools.

Now that Alfresco's ECM offering has been in the market for over a year, Newton had one more observation that would be helpful to startups. Just as OSS wasn't the key factor in the business model and development decisions, Newton does not believe OSS is an issue in user buying decisions. The key to users is that Alfresco is a low cost, cost-effective alternative to other ECM solutions.

I posed a question to John that I always wrestle with given my analytical background (at different times the middleware guy and ERP guy at both IDC and Datapro). Is Alfresco middleware or an application? John said they asked themselves the "same question often in Documentum." His answer is that in both cases they started selling the product as an application but customers were always adding on to it as if it were a platform. He walked the line in answering my question, preferring the terms platform or solution.

I also asked about emerging trends, irrespective of Alfresco itself. There is enough to write two articles in John's answers but his opinion on SOA and REST are worth listening to. In the ECM market overall, Alfresco and companies like it can take advantage of how services oriented architecture (SOA) handles systems integration issues. He believes SOA's emphasis on SOAP and web services makes it overly complex. He says to keep it simpler as with REST. If nothing else, REST is better suited to content management and other things like open search, new publish/subscribe protocols, and repositories that support federation, and work inside and outside the firewall. So one more lesson: find the architecture that suits your solution as well.

About the Author

Dennis Byron brings three decades of analyst experience to his role as ebizQ's Community Manager for Improving Business Processes. This community covers Business Process Management (BPM), Process Modeling, Process Analysis, and Business Alert Monitoring (BAM), among other topics.

As Community Manager, Byron will blog and podcast to keep the ebizQ community fully informed on the latest news and breakthroughs relevant to enterprise BPM. Byron will be responsible for bringing you breaking news on BPM daily, writing feature articles and sourcing content from other analysts, industry associations and vendors for publication on ebizQ. Finally, each week, Byron will compile the most important news and views in an e-mail newsletter for ebizQ's ever-growing BPM community.

Byron is ideally suited to the job, as he has researched and analyzed all areas of IT and information-systems use for the past 30 years. Byron looks at BPM market dynamics backed up by facts, while taking into account the perspective of the IT and business person. He is a frequent speaker and moderator on business processes, which will also be one of his roles as Community Manager.

Byron was the ERP and Middleware Analyst with the Datapro division of McGraw-Hill and IDC from 1991 to 2006. In these roles, he was the primary analyst for Business Process Management. He has conducted over 500 specific information-systems case studies. He has contributed to Application Development Trends, IT Business Edge, Research 2.0 and other publications.

Byron is also the principal of IT Investment Research, which is aimed at institutional and individual investors in IT, or anyone who enjoys peering under the covers of "the financials," where large companies and emerging IPOs like to bury their most interesting facts. His main area of interest is investment opportunities in enterprise software.

More by Dennis Byron

About ebizQ

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